Adolphus Sax (who also invented the bass clarinet) invented this soulful instrument in the 1840's. It was first exhibited in 1844 and was played by jazz greats such as John Coltrane and Charlie Parker. Recently, it has been making a comeback in ska music.

The Saxophone is a member of the woodwind family of instruments, despite its almost all-brass (or other form of metal) exterior. Plays on a single reed. Invented in the mid-1800's by Adolphe Sax. Typically regarded as a jazz instrument, but has found its way into many a concert Band. _Has_ crept its way into some orchestral pieces like Bizet's "L'Arlessiene".

Literally translated as "Voice of Sax."

The playable saxophone family and their key is as follows:

Sopranino (Eb)
C Melody Sopranino (C)
Soprano (Bb)
Alto (Eb)
Tenor (Bb)
C Melody Tenor (C)
Baritone (Eb)
Bass (Bb)
Contrabass (Eb)
Sub-Contrabass (Bb)

Except for the C Melody saxophones, they alternate in key from Eb to Bb. The C Melody's were created so that when someone wanted to play a piano piece or something else, they didn't have to transpose the whole thing.

To give you an idea of how big a Sub-Contrabass saxophone is, the bass saxophone has seven feet of large tubing. (I think there were two or three Octo-Contrabasses made, as well!)

But on a lighter side...

When he was 2 years old, he fell out of a second story window and fractured his skull.
When he was 6 years old, he mistakenly drank boric acid.
When he was 9 years old, he fell over a small cliff and broke his leg.
When he was 11 years old, he contracted measles and was in a coma for nine days.
When he was 14 years old, he broke his arm when he caught it in a carriage door.
When he was 19 years old, he was struck on the head by a falling brick.
When he was 23 years old, he almost died from the effects of tainted wine.
When he was 29 years old, Adolph Sax invented the saxophone.

I wonder how it feels for jazz pianists. Does the primary rush come from the rhythm they're keeping with the left hand, or is the real thrill those melodic trills they're playing with the right? Most of them look pretty damn happy, and they spend more time looking at their right hand, so I guess it's the high end that butters their biscuit. That's the end that thrills most folks like me, who play the guitar. It's a load of fun to play rhythm guitar, and I'm sure it's a ball playing bass. But it's when you get all wired up playing lead and get up into that higher register that things start to get magical. Watch the look on Eric Clapton's face as he gets into those tiny, tiny frets.

One of the most wonderful things that happens to a musician is when they get to actually play with folks who are a whole lot better than them. With me, it was usually sax players. The best pianists I ever played with were only above average. The best guitar players had some licks I didn't have, but I was not overly impressed with their skills. I guess I had been ruined when I got to see and hear Duane Allman lay hands on a six-string.

The great thing about a sax genius is how they hear it all. They hear the bass line that doesn't fit the song in any rational way, but fits just the same. They'll play that line as a sort of fill some nights. The bass player should notice this and nod -- not make eye contact -- just a slight nod, saying, "I hear you. Thanks." They hear the subtle ways the guitarist plays the rhythm, and they'll throw in a syncopation on some nights, way in the background where no one else really cares, to match that twist. Again, a nod is all that's required.

There are a few songs in a gig that you can't wait for, because it's your turn to shine. It's your turn to wait patiently, and in perfect tune, for that break you feel somewhere down deep inside. I can tell you that the most sublime moments I ever had playing live music were when I was in the midst of such a break, lost in the lines which made perfect sense to me at the time, and I would hear the veteran sax player chime in on a lick that I didn't even know I was going to play until I played it.

But he did.

A little known fact: the saxophone family was originally comprised of two sets. One, which is by far the most common today, was developed for use in wind bands, and is in the keys of Eb and Bb. The other is in C and F, and was intended to be used in orchestras.

The orchestral instruments never really caught on, so nowadays nobody uses the C or F, except for a handful of old C instruments. They're quite handy, since you don't need to worry about transposition - you play a C, and it comes out a C. By contrast, on a tenor sax in Bb, you play a C, and it comes out as a Bb.

Both of these families included everything from bass up to sopranino. I'm fairly certain that contrabass saxophones were not part of Mr. Sax's original plan, though they were added later - they're still quite rare. I've never had the good fortune of playing one, but the bass saxes I've tried have been quite a rush! Though not 7 feet tall, as stated, their 4 feet of very large tubing, and massive bell makes for quite an intimidating machine!

Unfortunately, the sub-octo-contrabass never *really* existed. Some ridiculously huge saxophones were built as promotions by factories, among them Conn, but they were never intended to be played, being simply a larger version of the other saxes - the keywork was not functional.

These days, saxes are used all over - not as much in popular music as they used to, and not as much in classical music as classical saxophonists would like, but they remain the main wind instrument in jazz, and can be heard occasionally in just about every other type of music in existence.

This is primarily due to the instrument's incredible versatility: a wide range of dynamics and timbres, from fuzzy whispers of sound to strident screeches, honks and blasts to lush silky sounds that put any violinist to shame. As well, a good player has the ability to manipulate the pitch immensely, making for some fantastic special effects. Indian musicians have begun using the saxophone in place of, or alongside, more traditional instruments, exploiting this aspect of it.

As well as all of these intriguing effects, saxophones can also play very quickly and with great agility, compared to similarly flexible instruments.

In short, the saxophone can be used just about anywhere, if the saxophonist has the technique, and the understanding of what he/she is doing. It's not a surprise that the instrument has become so well-known, and such a familiar cultural symbol in the hands of everyone from Lisa Simpson to Bill Clinton.

The sax is more than just another instrument. It's so much more than a vehicle for producing sound. It presents the highest level of complexity I have ever been presented with. Nuclear physics and quantum mechanics are noble pursuits and I must say that the two topics bested me in University, but the challenge they represent never consumed my entire soul the way that the never-ending study of this magnificent invention has.

It's so simple; a brass tube with a bunch of keys. All you have to do is blow into the end and out comes this wonderful sound. That's what you think. But then comes the day you pick it up and the first note that comes out squeals and screaches, removes paint from the walls and sends a small dog into fits of instanity. Immediately you start to wonder how the great saxophonists like John Coltrane and Michael Brecker take this hideously sounding hunk of metal and have it make music. I'm not talking about that pop "music" like Britney Spears or many of her little clones which is geared not towards the notes or the chord structure, or towards any complexity or imaginative thought but towards the video, the tits and ass designed to make men get hard and women get envious so they'll buy more exercise equipment. No, you wonder how these people can make music that climbs inside your head, your heart and your soul and paints the most incredible picture you've ever imagined.

If you're desperate enough and if it's grabbed hold of you hard enough, you study. You pick up that horn day after day after day, and you start to learn. Eventually you realize how the sax becomes an extension of yourself. You know that there will come a day when all you have to do is think your way through the horn and it will do anything you want it to. You learn that your breathing controls that sound. How your diaphragm exerts pressure is essential, how your larynx warps the airstream is vital, how the chamber in your mouth can manipulate the rate of reed vibration to get a darker or lighter tone, hit those altissimo notes or just make something sound weird. You learn what your lips do to make the pitch change, the reed to vibrate softer or harder. You start to realize that all of these things require decades to master and you haven't even started moving your fingers yet!

You practice your overtones, your scales, patterns, jumps, glides, pitch bends, intonation, experiment with warmth and growls -- your lips bleed but you don't notice until you look at the mouthpiece and realize that you've given more of yourself to the beast than you intended. But you didn't really give it -- the damned thing took it from you. It's become your obsession. You'll never be good enough! Once in a very rare moment you'll come across a day that works; everything happens for you. The licks come out, the ideas flow, the axe responds so beautifully that you can scarcely believe it hasn't been posessed by some sort of demon. The next day, the demon's gone. You're back to your old self, and the horn just doesn't shine the way it did the day before. Your old self is now a sieve, a shell. You've tasted greatness and you now find yourself lacking.

Much like the study of jazz the saxophone is the greatest thing in your life and, at the same time the most difficult and depressing piece of your existence. Nothing else, not even a woman takes me to the extremes of emotion like this beautiful and terrible instrument does.

Sax"o*phone (?), n. [A.A.J. Sax, the inventor (see Saxhorn) + Gr. tone.] Mus.

A wind instrument of brass, containing a reed, and partaking of the qualities both of a brass instrument and of a clarinet.


© Webster 1913.

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